Faith in film: Why not?

Posted: Dec 05, 2005 12:00 AM

Each December, the public endures new skirmishes in the seemingly endless "Christmas Wars" -- needless battles based on the false proposition that public celebration of the Christian holiday somehow menaces the dignity and survival of the nation's minority religions. This year, one of Hollywood's biggest year-end releases -- Disney's The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe -- has been caught in the seasonal crossfire, inspiring controversy over its Christian symbolism long before its debut this Friday.

Despite Disney's determination to market its high-stakes holiday gamble to the broadest possible audience, Narnia unquestionably contains messages that speak specifically to committed believers. Based on classic children's books by the beloved Christian advocate C.S. Lewis, the first movie in the series features an all-powerful lion, Aslan, (voiced by Liam Neeson) who sacrifices himself for a spoiled child, then comes back to life to defeat the forces of death and evil.

According to Kathleen Kennedy, a veteran producer (Jurassic Park) attached to the project 12 years ago, Disney's qualms over its Christian themes led the studio to drop the idea of a Narnia adaptation. Only the persistence of communications billionaire Philip Anschutz, a fervent evangelical whose Walden Media invested major resources in developing the costly film, persuaded the Disney brass to join him as partners.

Cries of propaganda

This unusual genesis for a Christmas blockbuster has produced widespread suspicion that the finished film will function as religious propaganda. Americans United for Separation of Church and State denounced a statewide reading contest in Florida timed to coincide with public interest in the film. "This whole contest is just totally inappropriate because of the themes of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," Barry Lynn, the group's director, told the Palm Beach (Fla.) Post. "It is simply a retelling of the story of Christ."

Meanwhile, Philip Pullman, author of best-selling fantasies for young readers, expressed fears about the movie's messages because the original books, in his opinion, contained "a peevish blend of racist, misogynistic and reactionary prejudice."

Actually, my own three children (like millions of other kids who have cherished the Narnia books in the past 50 years) never noticed such "prejudice" in the enchanting stories, and related to the tales as timeless confrontations between kindness and cruelty.

Growing up in an observant Jewish household, my children remained oblivious to Christian elements of the plot; only when my daughter began studying comparative religion at Yeshiva High School did she come to see that the books deliberately echoed the Gospel accounts. Of course, that recognition did nothing to weaken her Jewish faith -- any more than our annual family tradition of driving around to look at beautiful Christmas lights and decorations takes anything away from our commitment to our own religious tradition.

If a Christian family watches its neighbors joyously, meticulously celebrating Hanukkah -- or Ramadan or Kwanzaa, for that matter -- it doesn't detract from their enjoyment of Christmas. In fact, confronting other religious practices may help raise substantive questions about the deeper meaning of the holiday, beyond Santa and sleigh bells. By the same token, those of us in minority faith communities (or those who reject organized faith altogether) need not feel threatened by the 94% of our fellow citizens (according to recent polls) who celebrate Christmas. A more direct focus on the birth of Jesus by America's Christian majority should serve to strengthen, rather than undermine, our dissenting beliefs, as long as that focus steers clear of any form of intolerance or governmental coercion.

If my office co-worker insists on saying "Merry Christmas" (instead of the bland, politically correct "Happy Holidays"), or if the guy across the street installs an elaborate manger scene and a lighted cross on his front lawn, it doesn't interfere with my Hanukkah observance. In fact, it contributes to the kindly, soulful seasonal atmosphere that encourages all people to take their traditions and commitments more seriously.

Room for all faiths

Faith is hardly a finite resource, and the intensification of one religious community doesn't mean that others must suffer, any more than the financial success of your brother-in-law means that you will inevitably lose money.

Yes, it's too bad that the only Hanukkah movie in memory is Adam Sandler's execrable 2002 stinker Eight Crazy Nights. But if non-Christians feel overwhelmed each year with It's a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, A Christmas Carol and now The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the obvious answer isn't to scold these favorites, but to create our own worthy alternatives.

If many movie-goers pick up the New Testament resonance in the latest Disney spectacular, or if fervent believers otherwise succeed in their efforts at "putting Christ back into Christmas," we needn't fret nor fear. This republic has always led the world in religious tolerance and pluralism, recognizing that faith is hardly a zero-sum game. In this festive season, there's enough cheer to go around, and the affirmation of one faith in no way threatens any other.